Most everyone agrees that great paintings and sculptures and cathedrals are fine art.
Some people don’t think that great cinema is fine art, however. And that’s sad because it means that they haven’t seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Like a Baroque painter, Stanley Kubrick was a master of the visual arts. “2001” is a masterpiece that is visually stunning but elegantly simple.
In Act 1, a tribe of ape men come across a black rectangular monolith outside their cave. They recognize that it was put there by superior beings and it inspires the tribe to use bones as tools to kill their enemies.
Act 2: a couple of million years later, scientists find an identical monolith buried on the moon. They recognize that it is proof of extra-terrestrial life.
In Act 3, a spaceship travels to Jupiter to rendezvous with the aliens. Along the way, the ship’s computer decides that humans can’t be trusted with the mission and begins to kill them all.
Stanley Kubrick observes that humans are better at using our intelligence to kill than to communicate. This is essentially the same message as “Dr. Strangelove.”
What’s different about “2001” is the visual imagination. More than 50 years on, these are still the most amazing-looking special effects in cinema history.
The spaceships are a sight to behold. Much of the second act consists of long, slow-motion scenes of astronauts experiencing weightlessness with German classical music playing on the soundtrack. Some viewers will find it dull and pretentious. I find it beautiful.
The ape men scenes are nearly as impressive. These days, the ape men would just be computer effects. Kubrick used human actors wearing realistic ape suits. These actors are able to convey emotional complexity that a CGI cartoon never will; the ape men are simultaneously sophisticated humans and savage animals.
The scene where an ape man looks up at the alien monolith and sees the sun and sliver of the moon is a splendid painting all by itself. Without a word of dialogue, Kubrick shows us that the ape man suddenly understands that there are creatures or gods up there that are greater than he can possibly comprehend.
And that brings me to the monolith: possibly Stanley Kubrick’s most brilliant creation.
In a movie about aliens, the filmmaker has to show us the aliens, right? Kubrick decided that a physical representation of the alien culture’s intelligence would be more thought-provoking than a skinny dwarf wearing a grey costume.
Again, this was before computer effects, so Kubrick had to make the monolith himself. Using smooth black metal, the director elegantly demonstrates that these Extra Terrestrials have a culture that is clearly superior to ours but also impossible for us to comprehend.
For the record, I am not recommending that you watch this film tonight. I think it is fantastically enjoyable; you might find it boring and inscrutable.
My point is that “2001: A Space Odyssey” proves once and for all that cinema can be fine art. It is a masterpiece on the same level as Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” Rodin’s “The Thinker” or Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.